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The Independent Critic

Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons
Alex Garland
Rated R
109 Mins.

 Movie Review: Civil War 
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I think about it often and I thought about it throughout Alex Garland's Civil War, a film that left me shook not just because of what it showed me but also because of what it didn't. 

I think about what would happen if this America would rise to the surface or, maybe, I should say crumble to the ground. As an older adult with significant disabilities, I live in a world where I'm constantly aware that I'm expendable. Disposable, really. I consider myself a survivor, but I'm a survivor in a world where access is national law and all the supplies I need are readily available. Life ain't easy, but I at least don't live with this foreboding sense that I could be gutted at any given moment. 

Garland's Civil War became controversial long before its first screening. Except for those who choose to wear blinders, we're acutely aware that we're living on the fringes of this world with division increasingly being sown and increasingly violent rhetoric a near constant presence. It's us vs. them and we understand this world, or at least we think we do. 

I'm afraid of this world. I can't lie. It's not just because I'm a peacemaker who avoids conflict like I avoid my fruits and vegetables. It's because I'm an adult with a disability whose stable life, whose good life, could easily dissipate in a world like that portrayed in Civil War. 

This world, Garland's world, would kill me. 

So, it's likely not surprising that I most resonated with a secondary character in Civil War. The always impressive Stephen Henderson adds gravitas and vulnerability as Sammy, an elder statesman in the journalism world whose infirmities are now making it harder for him to live the life he's always lived even as he's watching the America he's grown up with seemingly disappear. He's determined to join acclaimed journos Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura) as they head toward Washington D.C. to interview the President (Nick Offerman), "the only story left" Lee tells us, in a world where the Western Forces, a united California and Texas, are racing toward that same destination determined to descend upon the White House for reasons best explained in the film. The trio will be joined by a newbie, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), who idolizes Lee but who is very clearly a burden to everyone arriving at their destination safely. 

Admit it. You're already thinking to yourself you know how all this is going to go. 

You're partially right. You're mostly wrong. 

I'm not going to share more about the story. That would be unfair. This is a film best experienced with minimal prior knowledge and an open mind. It's different from Garland's films like Ex Machina, Annihilation, and 28 Days Later. I'd swear it wears remnants of Garland's Men, though I'm having a hard time explaining why I feel this way. 

There will be those who hate Civil War either because of its subject matter or because Garland steadfastly refuses to take sides. Garland shoots the film like Lee shoots the world exploding around her - with a sense of normalcy that actually seems more jarring. 

That's it, really. Civil War just feels so normal. It feels real. It feels next door. It feels like we could choose to take our country there pretty easily or we could pull back. As our journalists travel, we spy parts of America in flames and parts of America seemingly untouched. Over the 800+ miles they must travel, we're enveloped by abandoned highways, forests aflame, gun-toting semi-militias taking over small towns and gas stations where hundreds of bucks might by you a sandwich or a lynching. 

Civil War is tense throughout. Garland avoids histrionics. There are no histrionics needed here. Yes, there's some stylized violence, but the emotions here are removed. At times, it feels as if we're living in a PTSD flashback. Into all of this, the remarkable Kirsten Dunst pours her finest performance to date as Lee. Dunst's Lee practically lives in that PTSD, a PTSD fueled by years on frontlines but never a frontline that was at home until now. There's a hint of vulnerability, just a hint, an an ever-growing mentoring relationship toward Jessie. Dunst's Lee holds her camera with an intimacy that overwhelms. 

The rest of the ensemble is stellar as well. Henderson shines. It's devastating to watch Wagner Moura's evolution, maybe devolution, over the course of the film. One scene, in particular, absolutely left me breathless. Cailee Spaeny shines as Jessie, a transformation over the course of the film that still never prepares us for all the places her character goes. 

It's complicated really. We don't truly get to know these characters. That's going to bother some folks, but I found it profound. I might've even cared more about them precisely because of that. 

I have to admit that for quite a while I wasn't quite sold on Jesse Plemons, however, in recent years his performances have just screamed out "You're wrong, motherfucker!" Indeed, I was wrong. He's a chameleon who immerses himself in character after character. He's unforgettably disturbing here. 

I'm still shook.

Civil War is going to be a love it or hate it film. I loved it. Rob Hardy's lensing captures both the power of journalism and crumbling of a society with equal honesty and passion. At times, Hardy envelopes us and other times he brings us in so close there's barely room to breathe. 

Original music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is stellar throughout and Civil War features a sublime soundtrack. 

Civil War is a powerful film immersed in an America that is so hard to look at yet we dare not look away. With Garland's detached storytelling and refusal to take sides, Civil War demands that we interpret the story ourselves and act on our truths.

Before it's too late. .

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic